How to Choose Footwear for Backpacking
Updated: Jun 10, 2021
When it comes to backpacking, your feet are your vehicle. You need to look after them with the right footwear and care. 20 years ago the answer was simple, you backpacked in leather hiking boots with a heavy waffle tread. The argument was you needed the support and traction due to the extra weight on your back.
Due to a lot of factors, the choices aren't that simple any more. Backpacks and the associated gear have gotten lighter, more people are using trekking poles for extra stability and shoe quality has improved. Plus more people are training specifically for hiking so the level of support they need is less.
Many people are successfully backpacking in hiking or trail running shoes. While others swear by classic hiking boots. If you go to any big outdoor store you will see a wall full of shoes and boots. This is great as there are more options than ever before but sifting through them to find the right on can be a challenge.
The following will help you make sense of which option is right for you. If you are more than a fair weather backpacker you will probably find that you will benefit from having a few pairs of footwear depending on the conditions and terrain you will be hiking in.
Shoes vs Boots
In the past, I would have said the only option for backpacking is above the ankle boots with a stiffening shank but I've found myself using less supportive trail running shoes for backpacking as time goes on. Part of the move in this direction is driven by the fact that all of my gear has gotten lighter over time. My pack used to weigh around 50 lbs for a week-long trip but now it weighs less than 30 lbs. Less weight on my back is less weight on my feet which requires less support.
Lighter shoes also take less energy to move. With a typical day being 15,000-25,000 steps, having substantially less weight on your feet will make a huge difference in how fatigued you will be at the end of the day. A study was done that showed saving 1 pound of weight off of your feet is the equivalent of saving 6 pounds out of your backpack. It costs a lot of money to save that amount weight on your gear.
The temperature has a bearing on footwear choice. If it is in the height of summer, leather boots can get really hot. Hot feet sweat and boots don't allow enough evaporation to keep your feet from getting wet. And as we all know, wet skin blisters easily.
My recommendation now is to go for lightweight trail shoes such as Alta Lone Peak or Salomon X-Ultra unless you have ankle or knee issues and need the extra support.
Additionally, I use boots in colder conditions, when I expect to need crampons and when I'm carrying extra heavy loads.
Boots come in three general levels of support.
The first is really just a high top shoe. Boots like the Merrell Moab Mid will add a little ankle support because they are above the ankle but the materials are still going to limit how supportive they are.
The next level of boot offers a medium level of support. They will have a stiffer collar above the ankle and have some sort of shank or stability plate in the midsole to give more support and protect the bottom of your feet from sharp rocks and uneven terrain. The Lowa Renegade or Salomon Quest 4D are great examples of a medium support boot.
The final level is ultra stiff full grain leather boots designed for a steep mountain environment with heavy loads. These are the most supportive boots but also require the longest break in period. I equate these with being the hiking version of mountaineering boots. Super stiff with aggressive traction for people who need the utmost in support. The stiffness isolates you from the ground limiting sensitivity. For examples of this type of boot look to the Zamberlan 1996 Vioz Lux or Hanwag Tatra II.
Benefit of boots
Better foot and ankle protection
Warmer and more weather resistant
For mountain travel, crampons are more comfortable on boots
Shoes for backpacking fall into two general categories.
First, you have the trail runner that is just a cushioned running shoe with an aggressive tread. The uppers are mesh and don't offer a ton of extra support. The feel light and fast. The trail running shoes that excel for backpacking are usually on the overbuilt end as far as running shoes go. Options like the Altra Lone Peak or Brooks Cascadia offer traction, cushion and low weight for a great combo for long distance hiking. When you choose the lightweight of trail running shoes you will be sacrificing durability.
The second will be more rugged hiking shoes. These are like built with more robust uppers for support and durability plus will usually have some type of shank in the midsole for torsional support. The extra support will come at the cost of extra weight but will last longer. Shoes like the Oboz Bridger or Salomon X-Ultra straddle that line between sneaker and boot.
Benefit of shoes
Lighter weight saves energy
Cooler in hot conditions
Quicker drying when wet
Better feel for the ground
Waterproof vs Ventilated
For most situations, waterproof doesn't work well at keeping your feet dry. When it is heavy rain your feet will eventually get wet but waterproof footwear doesn't drain so they act like a bathtub. Same goes for a stream crossing if you step into the water above the level of the waterproofing. In both cases, you need to take your shoes off and dump out the water.
The idea with most waterproof footwear is that it stops liquid water from getting in but has a microporous membrane which allows water vapor to escape. This only works when the temperature outside is cooler than in your shoes. In hot temperatures, waterproof-breathable fabrics don't work well.
When it is hot out I avoid waterproof footwear as my feet get wet from sweat. Non-waterproof shoes can get wet but they dry quickly and the rest of the time they allow your feet to breathe.
When it is cool out where sweat won't be an issue I often wear my waterproof hiking boots. When the temperatures are low enough, that my feet aren't hot and the waterproof-breathable membrane can function allowing water vapor to escape. In cooler weather like you will get in the spring and fall, gaiters can be part of your footwear weather-proofing as well. Covering from just below the knee to the top of the foot, gaiters help keep the feet warm and dry as well as keeping debris out of your boots.
My recommendation is breathable footwear that dries quickly when it is hot and waterproof-breathable boots when it is cold.
The shape of feet varies a lot from person to person. My feet are on the wide side with square toes kind of the like the Fred Flintstone cartoons. Your feet may be slender. So there isn't a simple answer about what shoes or boots to get shape wise.
If you have wide feet then look at Altra, Keen, or any brand that offers their footwear in a wide option.
If you have medium or narrow feet then you have more options as this covers most footwear on the market.
Regardless of what shape you choose they should fit snug in the heel with enough length that you have room in the toes. 5-10 mm of clearance at the toes is a good guide so that your toes don't hit the end of the shoes when going downhill. The shape of the toe makes a difference here as some are round while others are pointed. I personally need a rounder toe box as my baby toe is further forward compared to people with more pointed feet.
When you try them on your heel shouldn't move up and down as this will cause blisters over time. Additionally, the back of the shoe should fit the shape of your heel with no dead space or pressure on the Achilles tendon.
When you are shopping for footwear for backpacking try them with a weighted pack. When you have narrowed the selection down spend some time walking around in them. Go up and down the stairs or the testing ramp if you have the option to see how they feel.
Most footwear comes with a basic foam insole that I replace immediately. The exception is the Oboz shoes as they have a supportive insole with enough arch support for my feet. I have high arches so adding extra arch support really helps reduce foot fatigue.
I consider after-market insoles like Superfeet as a way to custom fit my shoes. The Superfeet are available in 3 levels of arch support so you can find a fit that suits your feet.
I've also used Sole Footbeds to good success. These are heat moldable so you can customize the level of support.
Custom orthotics are another option but come at a much higher cost. I've had these before but have found I can get the level of support I need from non-custom insoles at a fraction of the price. Orthotics are not a bad option if you have medical benefits that cover the cost.
Breaking in Your Footwear
Some footwear needs some wear to shape to your feet. This is usually full leather boots that will stretch a bit once they are worn for a few miles. Don't buy uncomfortable shoes hoping that they will break in.
Leather hiking boots should feel great in the store and get even better once broken in. The time to break in a pair of boots varies but a few weeks of hikes will often get them to the point they are ready for long hikes. You can speed up the break-in period by softening up the leather by coating them with bee's wax and heating them up with a blow dryer. Then put them on and go for a walk.
Depending on the construction of your footwear they may not need to be broken in. Full synthetic shoes or trail running shoes don't require any break-in.
How long will hiking footwear last?
This will vary a lot depending on what kind of footwear you're using. If it is a full leather hiking boot you can expect to get many years of use out of them. Some brands have even designed them to be resoled as you will wear out the rubber tread before the boot wears out.
If you are using trail running or hiking shoes with mesh uppers then expect to get around 500 miles. The terrain will play a big role in how quickly they wear out as rocky rough trails will shorten the lifespan.
Aside from the boots or shoes themselves, the next most important factor is what socks you choose. For best results avoid cotton as it absorbs moisture and once wet takes a long time to dry. The best materials for hiking socks will be Merino wool or Coolmax synthetic fabric. Both are good at wicking moisture away from the skin and dry quickly.
How thick the socks you need will depend on how cold it is. For 3 season hiking, a lightweight hiking sock with padding under the foot and around the toes will increase comfort.
If you are prone to blisters then consider wearing a thin liner sock under your hiking socks to reduce friction. If you carry a spare pair or two you can swap them out during the day allowing you to always have a dry sock against the skin.
If you blister between your toes then use Injinji toe sock liners. The individual pockets for each toe minimize friction between the toes. They look a little weird but are very comfortable. As a plus, if you use flip flops as your camp shoes you can wear these socks with them on cool mornings.
I find Merino wool hiking socks from Darn Tough to be the best as they are comfortable and durable. The smooth texture reduces friction thereby minimizing blisters. They also offer an unconditional lifetime warranty so if you wear a hole in the toe you get a new pair.
After a day of hiking, it is nice to have something to wear around camp that lets your feet air out. You can carry a pair of flip flops, Crocs or sport sandals to give your feet a break from your hiking boots. In a pinch, you can use them for hiking on easy terrain if your feet are feeling beat up. These can also be useful for water crossings or other times your feet might get wet to keep you main shoes from getting soaked.
Depending on the time of year and location of your hikes you might need to consider how micro-spikes or crampons fit on your footwear. I love the mountains so seeing snow and ice in late spring or early summer is not unusual. No matter how good the rubber tread on your hike footwear is it won't hand ice.
Try on your traction devices with your chosen footwear to see if they fit and how it feels walking around in them. If you have a long toothed crampon then a stiffer boot will feel more stable.
Always bring a spare pair of laces
Don't get stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a broken shoelace. Take them even on day hikes. Don't be that unprepared person who needs a rescue because of something silly.
The Wrap Up
Footwear is a very personal thing depending on your experience, fitness level, and injury history. If you need the support then boots are a great option but consider lightweight shoes if you want to go fast and long. I vary my footwear from trip to trip depending on the weather, conditions, and goals of the trip.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard